Dusted Features

Frusion at its Finest: Happy Apple

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Features

Dusted's Marc Medwin interviews and examines Minneapolis boundary breakers Happy Apple.

Frusion at its Finest: Happy Apple

“One of the important things is not to see the walls between different types of music,” says Happy Apple drummer David King over the phone as he tours with his other band, the Bad Plus, “You just like what you like and that comes out through you and your music.”

Such nebulous rhetoric more and more often leaves me cold; it’s used by every group attempting any kind of “post-modern” blend, sometimes to evade the interviewer’s question, hoping that the music “speaks for itself.” Luckily, Minneapolis-based Happy Apple’s music does just that, and with a refreshing vigor and vengeance born of intense listening and fine compositional chops. King, bassist Erik Fratzke and saxophonist/contraptionist Michael Lewis create a jazz-inflected hybrid music that merges free jazz, rock and third stream maturely and convincingly. Unlike Naked City, a collective most often subjected to the whims of a single authorial voice, Happy Apple allows plenty of room for improvisation within a fairly vigorous framework, and the resultant blend is both natural and permeable, carrying the group into it’s ninth year on the heels of its sixth studio disc.

The Peace Between our Companies may be the most consistently rewarding Apple release so far, but it is only the latest in a series of top-notch efforts. Part of the Solutionproblem, independently released in 1998 and the first to feature the band’s current lineup, pulls no punches as “Commercial Ascension” catapults the listener into HA’s frenetically diverse brand of fusion. Inordinately complex temporal shifts vie with bluesy off-tempo sax breaks and the echoing snare cracks of Brufordesque ’70s rock to create what I can only describe as alt.jazz. “Mary’s Mixture” sports a head and a rollickingly playful vibe much more overtly indebted to 1960s Ornette Coleman, King diving headlong into jazz-inflected timbral exploration. Please Refrain from Fronting, the band’s 2001 release, finds the sound at once more subtle and in your face, “The Invasion has Become” exemplifying both a beautifully realized penchant for contrapuntal composition and Erik Fratzke’s increasingly frequent fat-‘n-broad rock bass tropes.

“Yeah,” King laughed when I asked him about this. “He pulls all the treble off the bass, just a little bit distorted – very Black Sabbath.” I am not inclined to disagree, having been continually impressed by the way the Apple maintains rock credibility without the all-important and ever-prevalent fusion guitar. My naivety draws another laugh from King. “I love playing both mediums, and I like doing it in a way that doesn’t sound like I’m a tourist in either camp.” The pleasure King derives from all manner of musical experience was evident throughout our conversation, leading me to believe that the answer really is that simple. It is not an attempt to be “jazz-rock” or “third stream” that propels this band, rather a constant search for new expression given each member’s vast musical experience.

From trad to dance, metal to mood music, these three have walked the walks, and nowhere is this aggregate experience more obvious than on The Peace Between our Companies, their second disc for Sunnyside. Here, they out-Chicago the post-rock/jazzy Chicago palimpsest and out-post the best of the post-moderns with a sublimated but constantly shifting mixture of everything from their previous sessions; however, the changes might best be described as much more organic, occurring from track to track and from moment to moment, making any kind of linear description impossible and absurd. Each musical gesture affords a new look into the band’s flexible but intricate approach to composition. “See Sunspot Run” opens with cataclysmic drum thwacks, resembling nothing so much as primal hypnofunk sludge, King’s “prepared” drum rattling boney affirmation, but he throws off the vibe almost from the start with subtle off-beat cymbal strokes and fills. Things decay until a perfectly-timed bass gliss from Fratzke slides the tune into a nebulous focus, Lewis’ slinky sax drawls providing perfect counterpoint to a romantically chordal accompaniment.

Similarly, “Starchild Cranium” – yet another of the Apple’s wittily surreal titles – rams the disc into a very early high gear, a slamming rock-inflected rhythm section tempered by Lewis’ post-serial saxophone bleeps and bloops that just manage to connect enough with their surroundings to be tantalizing. All at once, after bass and drums ratchet the energy up past 11, a sudden halt gives way to a prettily balladesque vamp, still in tempo to maintain flow and sporting a beautifully “freebop” improv from Lewis. This gradually winds down, a reminiscence of the opening melody finally informing the listener that it was composed from the start, before a newly reinvigorated rhythm section slams the machine back into overdrive.

The whole record is full of surprises, from the swanky swing of “Dojo Fantastique” to the gorgeously smoky balladry of “Ella by Nightlight,” an introspective piece both similar and so distant from “Buffalo 98.” Unfortunately for American listeners, however, the slickest trick up the group sleeve didn’t make it onto the album. “Afternoon in Merikesh,” recorded last year with a group of Moroccan musicians in a single burst of controlled improvisation, is one of the Apple’s finest recorded moments. A non-linear exploration of repetitive modality, complete with vocals and additional rhythm instruments as well as faux-feedback courtesy of Lewis, it builds, glides and fades over 30 minutes of engagingly light polyrhythm. Intended at some point by the band to be Peace’s second disc, it was eventually fragmented and placed strategically throughout the European release of Peace along with other collaborative tracks. Fortunately for U.S. customers, I’m told that the track is available in its entirety as a download from Itunes, and it’s a companion piece well worth seeking out.

If a limited edition three-disc live set is any indication, the group puts on quite a show, pulling off every compositional twist and turn with ease and energy. While I’m pleased that their Universal contract in Europe has won them the right to experiment, I hope a similar level of acceptance can be achieved here at home; they certainly deserve it, and I await all future releases with keen anticipation.

By Marc Medwin

Read More

View all articles by Marc Medwin

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.